Category Archives: super-heroes

Putting the “All” in All Things Considered: Can Wonder Woman Find a Superhero Theme That Sticks?

WONDER WOMAN

Here we are in Year Ten of the Marvel Cinematic Era, and not one piece of music has emerged from any of the two dozen films based on Marvel characters (released by Marvel Studios and others) that can rival John Williams’ mighty score for Superman: The Movie or even Danny Elfman’s brooding Batman theme.

For years I’ve wondered why this is. But only two days ago did I at last get to ask someone who might know. On today’s All Things Considered, I speak with Rupert Gregson-Williams, who composed the score for director Patty Jenkins’ fine Wonder Woman. You might even hear a cameo by one of the most venerable heroes of the National Public Radio universe, the great Bob Mondello.

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So, was Watchmen awesome?

watchmen

Word. As an experience, meeting some friends at the Uptown last night to see Watchmen at midnight-plus-one (though it was more like midnight-thirty-five by the time all those sweetass trailers for Public Enemies and Star Trek and Wolverine and Terminator: Salvation, plus some trailers for other, seemingly less sweetass movies, were done) was, as you say, awesome.

But the movie? Also largely awesome. I think. Certainly I’m looking forward to seeing it again and reveling in all the minute, Blade Runner-level visual detail in which Zack Snyder and his people have rendered this world. And I’ll watch the aleady announced DVD cut of the picture, which reportedly expands the theatrical release’s two-forty run time by another half-hour or so. I do have the feeling this thing might play awfully slowly when I see it again, even though the film’s biggest problem is that its final third just hurtles along too damn fast. Maybe Watchmen would have been better brought to the screen as an HBO miniseries.

Alexandria DuPont diagnosed the movie’s pacing issues with her typical rapier wit and lacerating insight. (She also says that Matthew Goode — who plays Ozymandias as Ziggy Starust-era David Bowie — “dropped a charima bomb” in another movie. Wow.) The other reviews I’ve found insightful today are Roger Ebert‘s and Andrew O’Heir‘s (both strongly favorable), and Philip Kennicott’s (thumbs-down).

io9, Gawker’s sci-fi and comics blog, has a ton of revelatory Watchmen-related posts. In this one, screenwriter David Hayter reveals some of the inane studio-suggested changes he managed, heroically, to prevent.

This one discusses one change Hayter was inclined to make, without even being asked: Going with a much more restrained, less bloody climax than the comic’s. I don’t mean that the specifics, though not the tone, of the ending have been changed — we all know that by now. I mean that the film spares us the book’s long, lingering shots of the apocalypse that befalls New York City. Wanna guess why? 9/11 sapped the will of anybody, even those fully invested in being faithful to Moore and Gibbons’ vision, to put that onscreen. This is one of Ms. DuPont’s big problems with the movie — that “the part where we see and feel the consequences of Veidt’s actions” has been neutered — and you can see her point. But Hayter’s wins, at least for me. If you really want to see these Dave Gibbons drawings rendered in the same kind of photographic fidelity with which Snyder has reproduced so many other panels from the comic, well, you’ve got a stronger stomach than I do.

io9 also gives us a roundup of what elements from the comic have been eighty-sixed entirely. The dumbest one? Laurie’s smoking, one of the behaviors that humanized her in the book. She never lights up in the movie because — says Snyder — Warner Bros. muckety-muck Alan Horn dislikes smoking. Hey, so do I, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna sit still if somebody tries digitally to pull the butt out of Bogey’s mouth in The Maltese Falcon. After all the battles Hayter and Snyder won — the length, the complexity, the R-rating — smoking is the thing he can’t get through? Alan Horn deserves lung cancer. What an asshole.

Watch-day!

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I’m going to see Watchmen at midnight , and I can’t wait. Actually, that statement is demonstrably false, because I’ve been waiting for this movie ever since I read (retired?) DC Comics Publisher Jeanette Kahn’s “Direct Currents” column about a potential film adaptation of Watchmen back in the late 80s.

I was excited when I read in the long-defunct Fantagraphics-published fanzine Amazing Heroes that Sam Haam had written a screenplay that actually improved upon the one (arguable) flaw of Moore and Gibbons’ 12-issue maxi-series: it’s 1950’s The Day the Earth Stood Still-style denouement. (I hear that an alteration to the ending has survived all the subsequent drafts and years of development hell, though only the Writers’ Guild knows whether the finished film’s ending was Haam’s.)

I was excited when Terry Gilliam was going to direct it, even though his own revision of the screenplay purportedly sucked worse than the film version of Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. If anybody could get this thing onscreen intact, I figured, the guy who made Brazil could do it.

I was excited again, ten-plus years later, when Paul Greengrass was going to do it. (Though Cloverfield is probably a fair indication of what a Greengrass-shot Watchmen would have looked like.)

I was skeptical when I heard Zack Snyder, he of the-shot-by-shot adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, had won the gig. I haven’t seen 300, but I gather it was mostly about a bunch of CGI-hardbodies wrestling in Matrix-like slow-motion. But when I read about the faithfulness and commitment with which Snyder was translating Moore and Gibbons’ sprawling masterpiece for the movies — keeping it set in alternate 1985, casting non-stars, allowing for a near-three-hour theatrical-cut run time (three-plus for DVD) and, crucially, an R-rating — I began to get excited again.

In about seven hours, I’ll be watching the movie. Sometime after that, though possibly not right away, I’ll know whether Snyder and screenwriter David Hayter succeeded. I’ve tried to avoid reading the mainstream critics’ notices, though I did weaken and read David Edelstein’s review in New York, which articulated nicely my reservations about Snyder.

I believe this much, though: Snyder tried — really tried — to make something great. Or at least to be faithful to something great.

Orson Welles, who made three brilliant films and many more failures, said it takes as much hard work to make a bad movie as it does to make a good one. But William Goldman, who’s had more commercial success than Welles but never improved upon The Princess Bride, said that most movies aren’t even meant to be any good.

Watchmen, I have faith, was meant to be good. And now, we’ll see.

Because Christmas Is a Dish Best Served Weird…

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Santa Claus and Popcorn, the third in my annual (so far) series of radio Christmas cards featuring yule-tunes eclectic and inexplicable (TM), is now sliding its merry way down chimneys around the globe.

Web(ber) of Spider-Man

spider-man-no-more

I’ve got a preview in the Weekender of the apparently quite popular Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Turns out the show’s Phantom (among other roles), Ron Bohmer, is an unreformed comic book geek, just like me.

I keep forgetting that Bono and Edge wrote the music for the budgetbusting Julie Taymor Spider-Man, or rather, Spiderman, a distinction of great significance. Because I don’t want to believe it. I mean, I like U2, Taymor, and Spidey separately, but all together? Sounds like bacon and ice cream.

With Great Power . . .

Detail from Steve Ditko\'s original artwork for Amazing Fantasy No. 15, August 1962

Went down to the Library of Congress today to look at Steve Ditko’s original artwork from Amazing Fantasy No. 15 — which y’all know was the first appearance of Spider-Man, right?

Awesome. The original artwork — donated anonymously to the LoC about a month ago. For Spider-Man and the three other stories, also penned by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko, that comprised the issue. It would take seven months after the publication of this, final issue of Amazing Fantasty (nee Amazing Adult Fantasy) for Spidey to get his own title. Forty-six years later, he’s still going strong.

I’ll have a story about it in the paper next weekend.

This Movie Is Not a Rebel Movie, This Movie is U23D

Bono fronts the World's Biggest Band while sporting the World's Most Inclusive Headband.

Bono fronts the World's Biggest Band while sporting the World's Most Inclusive Headband.

For those of you who have never had the pleasure of being right up close at a U2 concert, let me divulge with a spoiler: Bono — a.k.a. Paul Hewson, a.k.a. The Fly, a.k.a Mr. MacPhisto; champion of Africa and two-time Nobel Prize nominee; debt-relief crusader and F-bomb-dropping bane of the Federal Communications Commission; the big-brained, big-hearted, big-mouthed and wholly unembarrassable frontman for The (all together now) World’s Biggest Band — is a wee, short little dude. Five-seven, five-eight, tops. When he performs — and truly, no rock and roll frontman has ever looked more at ease serenading a stadium-load of air guitarists than this guy — he wears thick-soled boots that give him an extra inch-and-a-half on the vertical plane. Every little bit helps, right?

But to paraphrase Al Capone, you can get further with a pair of platform shoes and a 3-D IMAX film that captures your every messianic gesture in close-up — and then projects your mug with frightening, acne-scarred digital clarity on a screen six stories high — than you can with platform shoes alone.

Thus arrives U23D, the most unambiguously-titled movie since, um, Aliens vs. Predator. It’s an 85-minute concert film compiled from a half-dozen early 2006 stadium gigs from U2’s Vertigo Tour. (Two other concert DVDs from the Vertigo Tour have already come out, making it perhaps the most exhaustivelydocumented rock roadshow since Bono created the world in seven days. Oh, relax, would you? I’m kidding now.) Released through National Geographic (!) exclusively in IMAX theatres, it’s the first live-action film to be completely shot and edited using a digital 3D process that James Cameron helped to develop and is using to shoot Avatar, his post-Titanic return to features. The results are, from a purely technical perspective, extraordinary.

The images have a convincing illusion of depth, and the film’s sound design contributes to the immersive feel of the thing by discretely separating different vocal and instrumental sounds. On “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” for example, your hear Bono’s lead vocal in front of you and the Edge’s backing part somwhere behind your head.

While this captures the feeling of being there more convincingly than traditional concert movies, it’s still a wholly unique experience, equally removed from a gig or a film. For one thing, you can both see and hear better than you would from even the best seat in the house at an actual concert, with the cameras giving us a variety of perspectives that would be impossible to achieve in a live situation. Of course, many concert films do this much, but at the cost of immediacy. Not so here: You feel the crowd (or, in some thrilling band POV shots, your fellow performers) around you at every moment.

The sound design, too, emphasizes the rumble-in-the-gut feel of a concert over a pristine presentation of the music, allowing crowd noise to remain a constant presence in the mix. No overdubs were added after the shoots. Bono’s once-mighty vox, an uncertain quantity in recent years, gets a little help, with the film’s audio selectively mixed to hide its limitations. (The culprits seem to be poor vocal technique and smoking rather than age — though it seems impossible given all he’s achieved, Bono is only 47 in Earth-years.)

With their two world tours of the 1990s, Zoo TV and PopMart, U2 did more than any band ever had, practically or artistically, to compress the space of a football stadium into a place where something like intimacy was possible. So it makes sense that they’d want to try to advance the medium of the concert film in the same way. As co-directred by Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington, both longtime associates of the band, U23D errs on the side of taste, preferring long takes to the hyperactive jump cuts of many concert films and avoiding the eye-poking novelty of the other 3D movies you’ve seen. There’s little sense of Bonozilla terrrizing Tokyo (or indeed Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Santiago, or Buenos Aires, the cities where the movie was shot). The “wipe your tears away” passage of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is the only point I can recall at which he directly reaches out to “touch” the viewer.

2008_0123_TheEdge.jpg The 3-D effect is most striking in the crowd shots, wherein the sea of heads and arms seems to extend outward from the screen even as they vanish into a horizon of camera flashes and illuminated cel phones. Bono’s hand gestures get some John Madden-eqsue etch-a-sketch accompaniment during “Love and Peace or Else.” In most concert videos, this sort of embrodiery is always a mistake, but the way the digital “chalk lines” seems to hover in midair actually makes you wish U23D indulged in a bit more of this sort of gimmickry.

Dramatic low angles and backlighting only make The Edge want to rock harder. Photo courtesy @U2.

At 14 songs and 85 minutes, U23D is only about two-thirds as long as a typical Vertigo Tour concert, which will be enough for all but the diehards. Things begin rather clunkily with the ubiquitous iPod jingle “Vertigo,” a fun rocker but not a show-starter. U2 know how to make an entrance like few other bands, but that’s one aspect of a U2 show that Owens and Pellington have missed entirely, instead giving us some dull slo-mo footage of fans running into the venue.

Predictably, the songs included are mostly U2’s Greatest Hits — “Beautiful Day,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “One” — but a few worthy album tracks make the cut. Most notable is “Miss Sarajevo, the band’s 1995 elegy for that war-torn city. When Bono sings the Italian verse that Luciano Pavarotti performed on the recorded version, it’s one of the highlights in terms of sheer performance. Meanwhile, the unholy sonic mess that is the botched start of “The Fly” is one of the carefully-chosen moments of imperfection left in, like Adam Clayton’s bungled bass solo on “Gloria” from the Under a Blood Red Sky live EP a hundred years ago. (Okay, it was 1983, but you know.)

Of course, we’ve never needed U2 to point out their own shortcomings. Witness the wonky close of “With or Without You,” a tune U2 have played at every full-length concert they’ve given since 1987, and still they bungle it as often as they don’t. (For a more assured version, see Rattle and Hum, U2’s prior theatrically-released concert film, from 1988.) But it doesn’t really matter — hearing 70,000 voices wail the song’s bridge is so hair-raising that the rest of the performance is little more than afterthought.

Bono’s sometimes eloquent, sometimes tiresome, always criticized sermonizing is all but absent, perhaps because all of the footage is from concerts in countries where English is not the native tongue. But the centerpiece of the Vertigo Tour shows, wherein “Sunday Bloody Sunday” segues into “Bullet the Blue Sky” while Bono dons a headband/blindfold bearing the command “Coexist,” with an Islamic crescent moon representing the “C,” a star of David the “X”, and a cross the “T,” is as powerful on film as it was in person. A few minutes later, when a recording of a woman reading the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights introduces “Pride (In the Name of Love),” you might have to stop yourself from pumping your fist in righteous solidarity.

You’ll want to stay through the credits, which feature some cool animation effects left over, presumably, from the movie proper, as well as a live performance of “Yahweh.”

“You’re all so much smaller in real life,” Bono once told a concert audience. In U23D, the long-lived Irish quartet has finally found the film format to match their outsized ambition. The World’s Biggest Band has become, beyond all argument, the world’s biggest band. Like, quantifiably. Seems appropriate somehow.

U23D opens Jan. 23 at the National Museum of Natural History’s Johnson IMAX Theatre. Advance tickets are available here. The film, if you care, is rated G.